The Donkey Kong Country series knows exactly what it is and what it sets out to be. While it looks like a certain other Nintendo platforming series, the DKC games set themselves apart by being a tad more difficult. Retro Studios has fully grasped this and arguably peaked with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, a 2014 Wii U effort that is largely remembered for being one of the most difficult games to hit that console. Think of Donkey Kong as the anti-Kirby in that respect.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on the Nintendo Switch is more than a way to offer a few new bells and whistles on a game that a good chunk of the gaming public might have missed the first time in 2014. For the purposes of this review, it's a chance to look back at and see what four years of perspective have done to Retro Studios' second take on the DKC license. And while many of Shacknews' original criticisms on the game still stand, some of the game's more artisitc elements have aged pretty well.
The biggest addition to the Switch version of Tropical Freeze is Funky Kong. He's not just in charge of a shop this time around, but he's the face of his own difficulty level.
Funky Mode is far more forgiving than the game's normal mode. It's more than just giving each of the Kongs an extra heart, which is critical in boss battles that last for multiple phases. It's the ability to control Funky Kong, who has five hearts available to him. On top of a double jump and the ability to withstand spikes, Funky can also roll for an unlimited period and swim underwater without running out of air. This makes the game much more accessible to newcomers and novices and should make the game a little easier. Funky is especially useful in the later game, with its abundance of underwater sequences. He's also fun for veterans who want to go crazy and try to roll across levels at a faster pace.
But even with all of those assists available, Tropical Freeze isn't just about withstanding enemies. It's a tough-as-nails platformer and the game still proves to be challenging, even with the Funky Mode assists. Players need to be careful about making jumps, timing their barrel blasts, and also be able to withstand the occasional troll. One example saw me taking my sweet time aiming my barrel cannon, so a tree literally fell on the cannon and crushed me, forcing me to try again.
Also, no amount of assists can help with some of Tropical Freeze's most difficult stages: the vehicle levels.
Slipping on a Banana Peel
While Tropical Freeze adds a few new helpful features, this is basically the 2014 game ported over, warts and all. That means a lot of the more aggravating elements of the original Tropical Freeze will be present.
Getting the biggest issue out of the way first, mapping multiple functions to the same button can be a huge pain. There have been several instances where I'd try and toss an enemy, only to drop it and instead roll to my doom. Similarly, I would try and ground pound an area quickly, only to have my Kong start rolling off a nearby cliff. With multiple buttons available, especially on the Switch Pro Controller, it doesn't make sense to have the X/Y, A/B, and ZL/ZR buttons perform the same functions. The lack of customized controls really hurts here, especially when they can lead to cheap deaths. Tropical Freeze provides more than enough cheap deaths on its own without finicky controls to help on that end.
Then there are those aforementioned vehicle stages. The minecart stages are a staple of the series and while there are some inconsistent hitboxes that can be frustrating, the minecart stages are what they are at this point. They're hard, but doable. The rocket barrel stages, on the other hand, still handle about as gracefully as a monkey navigating a shopping cart. The rocket barrel flying out of control is almost unavoidable given the controls, which require players to frequently tap the jump button, but not too many times or else the barrel will slam into the ceiling. Instant deaths are a certainty with this thing, just because of the controls and how unresponsive the barrel can be. It's impossible to swerve out of the way of sudden objects and it's impossible to maintain any kind of steady course.
In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle
While Tropical Freeze can be a test of patience, the fact that much of the game looks gorgeous makes it a test worth enduring. The Kongs themselves are crisply detailed, as are all of their high-def surroundings. All of the environments are rendered beautifully, accompanied by both classic new tunes and remixes of old DKC favorites. Some of the stages even work in tandem with the background music, like an early World 3 stage that has ropes bouncing up and down and dancing to the beat of the music.
There are also several stages that experiment with different ideas. There are levels that use a more indie-style art aesthetic, with the Kongs rendered in basic greens and yellows. Other stages have the Kongs running around in the background. Certain minecart stages will have players rolling down a spiral path, with the camera making sure to pan over to incoming objects from the background.
One of my favorite elements of the DKC series has always been trying to get off the beaten path and explore and that's all here in Tropical Freeze. All of the stages have either bonus stages or secret exits that open up entirely new areas. The bonus levels often contain some of the game's more interesting elements, like a stage with a different art style or a chance to run wild with Rambi, making them feel like they're worth hunting down.
Tropical Freeze isn't perfect by any means, but having run through it a second time, I feel like it's aged well in the last four years. The challenge can be soul-crushing, but it's satisfying to finally make it across that one jump or beat that one boss. There are enough tools available to make the journey a little bit easier this time around, but not so much to completely diminish the challenge outright.
Tropical Freeze won't stand with the all-time great DKC games, but it's a perfectly fun romp through Donkey Kong's island in its own right.
This review is based on a download code provided by the publisher. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze will be available in retail and digital stores on May 4, 2018 for $59.99. The game is rated E for everyone.